|Apr. 17th, 2006 @ 08:36 am R.I.P. Robert Lee Smith, 1939-2006|
April 15, 2006, 12:53AM
BIG ROBERT SMITH, 1939-2006
Longtime Houston blues singerBy ROGER WOOD
For The Chronicle
The Houston blues community lost one of its most beloved ambassadors with the recent death of vocalist Big Robert Smith; he was 66. Born Robert Lee Smith in 1939 and raised in Third Ward, he died at Ben Taub Hospital on April 6.
The amiable 300-plus pound singer is best known locally, nationally, and internationally for his show-stealing featured role with Grady Gaines and the Texas Upsetters. That 35-year affiliation is highlighted for posterity by Smith's contributions to the group's later recordings, including the albums Full Gain, Horn of Plenty and Jump Start.
Over the years Smith also collaborated with other musicians. During the 1990s he fronted his own band, Big Robert and the Ravens, on local stages. More recently Smith collaborated with the group El Orbits resulting in a soon-to-be-released CD recorded live at the Continental Club.
Smith started his music career by singing in the choir at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church. While still a student a Yates High School, he began attending the now-legendary Blue Monday jam sessions led by Joe "Guitar" Hughes at Shady's Playhouse, where he cultivated his early interest in the blues.
After first working professionally as a drummer in a group led by Carl Campbell, Smith gradually emerged as a singer in Houston clubs during the early 1960s. A band led by eventual blues superstar Albert Collins was one of the first to feature Smith's vocal prowess on a regular basis, especially at a Sunnyside neighborhood establishment called the Big Apple.
In subsequent years, Smith performed onstage with various major blues and R&B artists, including Bobby Bland, Ernie K-Doe, Travis Phillips, Millie Jackson and Joe Hinton.
On Thursday, scores of family members, friends, and fellow musicians gathered for Smith's funeral at Mabrie Memorial Mortuary in Third Ward. The service was highlighted by music performed by many of Smith's former band mates in the Texas Upsetters, including Grady Gaines, Yvette Busby, Patrick Harris, and Earlie Lewis.
Roger Wood is the author of Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, a history of the city's storied blues scene.